Paricutín erupting, by Dr. Atl
by Philip Hall
I married into a large and regionally important Mexican family, and so got to know some parts of Mexico quite well. I lived there, first as a student at the university of Vera Cruz in the early eighties, later in Mexico City as a teacher, and finally as a married man with three small children throughout the ’90s to 2002.
Mexico is astonishingly different from everywhere else I have been to. It is extraordinarily, deceptively complex. The differences between Mexican culture and European culture roil under the surface in an enormous collision of continents; the greatest power in the 16th century in Europe, Spain, collided with the greatest power in the Americas, the Aztecs, to create a new planet: planet Mexico.
We have both a vulcanologist and a small volcano in the family. The vulcanologist is a lecturer and researcher who works in the department of vulcanology at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM). The volcano is called Paricutín. Paricutin used to be a town. Paricutín is the Omphalos of the municipality of Uruapan. Mexico has a whole wrap of volcanoes around its middle.
If you drive from Mexico city, Guadalajara, or Morelia to Uruapan then you know when you are near because the weather is cooler. The landscape starts to smile and dimple and the hills and mountains look soft and round, furred with pine, or made bald by deforestation.
In 1943 the people of the municipality felt earth tremors. Uruapenses heard a rumbling for many days. When the volcano finally erupted, they saw a thick black cloud of ash rising up, and a red glow in the sky. At night, there were orange plumes of lava, and hot boulders shot up into air in a fountain of sparks. In the morning grey ash covered the streets, the rooftops and the cars and pick up trucks. It was nine years before Paricutín stopped erupting.
Consider this when you drive through the municipality of Uruapan. Every single one of those hills and mountains was once a volcano.
In the district of Parangaricutiro, near the town of Paricutin, Dionisio Pulido, a farmer and goat herder, remarked to the pulque and mescal drinking customers in a local cantina in the town, that the soles of his sandaled feet burned when he walked across over the field on his farm, they laughed at him.
Later, the townspeople could hear and see the evidence for themselves. Then they listened to Dionisio without laughing. Dionisio described how a crack had opened up in his field. He said it smelled infernal and that it whistled like a train and hissed. It spouted ash and smoke.
Dionisio also told his story to the local authorities, who wrote it down. It is one of a series of eyewitness testimonies the municipality collected for publication. It should be noted that Dionisio is the only person in recorded history who has ever witnessed the birth of a volcano from the ground. I have translated some of his testimony for you:
At four O’clock I left my wife next to the fire we had made from forest wood and then I noticed that in one of the corals of my farm a crack had opened up in the earth and I saw that it was the sort of crack that is only half a metre deep. I turned back to light the brazier again, when I felt a thunderclap, the trees shook and I turned around to speak to Paula. That was when I saw that the hole, the earth had swollen and lifted up two or two and a half metres high and a sort of fine powder, grey like ash, began to go upwards from a bit of the crack that I hadn’t seen before.
More smoke went up and immediately a loud whistle started and kept up and I noticed the smell of sulphur. That was when I got really scared and began to go back to help yoke the ox quickly. I was stupefied and I didn’t know what to do and I couldn’t see my wife or my son or my animals nearby.
That was when I came to my senses and remembered Our Sacred Lord of the Miracles. I shouted, ‘Blessed Lord of the Miracles, it was you who brought me into this world.’ And then I looked at the crack where the smoke was coming from and my fear disappeared for the first time.
I rushed to see if I could save my family, my comrades, and my animals, but I couldn’t see them. I thought they must have taken the oxen to the ranch to water. I saw that there was no water on the ranch and thought that it must have gone down the crack. I got really scared and got on my mare and galloped off to Paricutín, where I found my wife and son and friends who were waiting for me, because they thought I was dead and they would never see me again.
The eruption grew more and more violent. Soon geologists came from Mexico City and they made the official announcement that a new volcano was being born. After the geologists came the painters and the poets.
Dr Atl (Gerardo Murillo) painted the baby volcano. Jose Revueltas wrote a book about it entitled, Vision of Paricutin. Juan Rulfo wrote about Paricutin. Pablo Neruda gives it a mention.
The Japanese ambassador was from the north of Japan. He visited Angahuan and when he saw what the people who lived there looked like, he was amazed:
‘But these look just like my people. These are my people. They are my brothers and sisters.’
To him, the people of Angahuan looked just like the people from his town on Hokkaido. Tarazcans have dark copper skins and jet black hair. They have large brown eyes which have a little twisted slant. Their faces are quite flat, and their brows slope back attractively.
You stand out if you are not a Tarazcan in Angahuan. The people will stare at you as they go past, or else they will ignore you. There is little European, or African about them. They are not as mixed as the people of town of Uruapan, the capital of the district. Angahuan smells of wood stoves, horse manure and mud.
To get to Paricutín you have to first go to Angahuan. Some of the people there still live in trojes on the outskirts. Trojes are delicate wooden houses built on stilts. They have gabled roofs. Ordinary Tarazcan people used to live in Trojes before the Spanish invaded. The structures of the rulers of the Tarazcans are much more monumental. Visit the round pyramids of Tzintzuntzan on the shores of lake Patzcuaro.
In Angahuan, women – and some of the older girls and teenagers – wear the traditional rebozos, or headscarves. Every region has its own style of patterned headscarf. The rebozos of Angauan are striped a deep electric blue and black. Tarazcan men wear plain white clothes and well-made cowboy hats – the mark of a farmer. There are only a few trucks and cars in Angahuan.
If you are a tourist, you must hire horses to go to the buried town and to the volcano. The horses pick their practiced way through the bushes and long grass, past the still sharp, frozen edges of black rock. After about half an hour you will reach the side of a wall of rough basalt. To see what is left of Paricutín you have to climb up onto the basalt. This is quite difficult; the ground billows up and down, and if you trip and fall, you will cut yourself badly. Nothing remains of the town except the steeples of the church poking up between the waves, one of which has been cracked in two.
The people of the Paricutín didn’t believe the lava would cover their town. They hoped God would stop the lava. They gathered in the church and prayed for a miracle. Inexorably, the lava advanced. Finally, they understood that the town really would be engulphed. They abandoned it at the last moment at speed and the town was swallowed up. Fifty metres outside the town the rock stopped flowing.
From the buried town, you must re-mount your horses and ride on to the volcano itself. The volcano is a huge, black, sandy hill. You climb to the top. It didn’t take long. A little white steam still rises from the cinders around the rim. You feel the heat on your face when you turn towards the crater. Don’t get too close. The vapours are toxic. They smell of sulphur.
Right at the top of the volcano is a placard stuck into the hot grey powder. It says:
Lord, I thank you for saving us when the volcano Paricutín erupted. You know what you are doing, Lord. But why, oh why, did you take my land?
The Parangaricutiros from Paricutín were relocated to another town. They call it San Juan. But behind their backs, their neighbours from Uruapan make fun of them. They call the new town San Juan de los Conejos instead, Saint John of the Rabbits, because the poor people of Paricutín, holding on until the last moment, had to run from the volcano like rabbits.